Radovan Karadzic boycotted the opening day of his war crimes trial Monday and sent no lawyer to defend himself, forcing judges to abruptly adjourn the hearing. Judges then vowed that the former Bosnian Serb leader's trial would begin Tuesday with or without him.
The decision enraged survivors who had traveled by bus from Bosnia to see Karadzic finally face justice. A small group briefly refused to leave the courtroom after the adjournment and one woman threatened a hunger strike.
Karadzic stayed away from the hearing, claiming he has not had enough time to prepare. He has been in custody and working on his defense since his arrest on a Belgrade bus in July 2008. Karadzic, one of the central figures of the Balkan wars triggered by the breakup of Yugoslavia, faces two counts of genocide and nine other charges or war crimes and crimes against humanity. His trial is the most important war crimes case in the former Yugoslavia since the uncompleted trial of his mentor, Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president who died during his trial in 2006.
Karadzic, who evaded capture for 13 years, has repeatedly refused to enter pleas, but insists he is innocent. He faces a maximum life sentence if convicted at his trial.
Judge O-Gon Kwon said in the absence of Karadzic, who was defending himself, or any lawyer representing him, he was suspending the case until Tuesday afternoon, when the prosecution would begin its opening statement.
Court spokeswoman Nerma Jelacic said the delay was to give Karadzic time to reconsider his boycott.
Judges "have figured out what they are going to do: They are going to start with or without him," she said.
In a letter dated Friday and released after the proceedings began Monday, Karadzic again pleaded for more time.
"I would and never will boycott my trial, but if I am not prepared that would not be a trial at all," he wrote. "There must be a fair solution."
Prosecutor Hildegard Uertz-Retzlaff urged judges to appoint a defense attorney to represent Karadzic whether he likes it or not, saying he should not be able to deliberately hold up the trial.
The only sign of Karadzic in the courtroom was a pair of headphones lying on the desk where he has sat during pretrial proceedings.
The suspension brought cries of anguish and anger from the small public gallery that was packed with survivors of the war and media. Admira Fazlic, who was imprisoned in Bosnian Serb-run camps during the conflict, shook her head as she left the courtroom.
"We are shocked," she said. "Radovan Karadzic is making the world and justice ridiculous. He is joking with everybody."
Observers say the 64-year-old Karadzic's absence from Courtroom One at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal should not overshadow the case's significance. Karadzic's trial is seen as a chance for the tribunal to make amends for Milosevic's ill-fated trial, which dragged on for four years before his fatal heart attack.
Yet Karadzic's boycott and the uncertainty over whether the court should impose a defense attorney on him has raised the specter of a repeat of the trial of Milosevic, who also had an attorney forced on him.
Param-Preet Singh of Human Rights Watch said denying Karadzic the right of self-defense could backfire.
"To strip him of that right by imposing counsel, you could have the situation where you have an uncooperative defendant forced to defend himself in a way he did not want," she said.
Karadzic's genocide charges stem from the 1995 murder of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica and from the Bosnian Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country's Muslim and Croat populations.
The war left more than 100,000 dead, most of them victims of Bosnian Serb attacks.
Seeing Karadzic finally face justice is enormously significant to victims who still cannot put to rest their memories of the horrors, said the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Belgian Serge Brammertz.
Dzemla Delalic, her gray hair covered by a white head scarf, shook her fists at the tribunal as she left the building, threatening to go on hunger strike if the case does not proceed.
"They protect him here and there is nobody here to help us," said Delalic, a Srebrenica survivor who lost 30 male family members in the massacre.
Survivors revile Karadzic as the man whose political dream of creating an ethnically pure "Greater Serbia" triggered the Srebrenica massacre -- Europe's worst bloodbath since World War II -- and the notorious campaign of sniping and shelling that turned Bosnia's picturesque capital Sarajevo into a killing field.
Karadzic has worked hard to avoid facing justice. He says he cut a deal with U.S. peace envoy Richard Holbrooke in 1996 in which he agreed to drop out of public life in return for immunity from prosecution.
Holbrooke denies making such a deal and tribunal judges say it would not be binding on them.
Karadzic's whereabouts was unknown for years until his arrest last year when he was posing as New Age healer Dr. Dragan Dabic, disguised behind thick glasses, a bushy beard and straggly gray hair.
Prosecutors wanted to try Karadzic together with his wartime military chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic, but Mladic remains on the run, one of only two suspects still sought by the court. The other is a former leader of rebel Serbs in Croatia, Goran Hadzic.